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COVID, low attendance have slashed Orioles’ rent payments to stadium authority, records show

Catherine Hinchliff never went to Camden Yards because she expected an Orioles win. She used to buy a student-priced ticket to enjoy a beer and a night in the upper deck with friends.

“It’s the perfect way to spend a Friday evening,” the 33-year-old Johns Hopkins University graduate student said.

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A Seattle native — “experienced with loss, being a Mariners fan,” she said — Hinchliff adopted the O’s as her “second-home” team when she moved to Baltimore in 2014, even scoring tickets to a playoff game with a friend in a lottery.

But the Charles Village resident has gone to just two games this season, contributing to the sea of empty stands seen at most home games. She is among the many Orioles fans who are visiting the ballpark less frequently amid a protracted pandemic and a roster rebuild more focused on its farm team system than the major league product. The resulting team could become the worst in O’s history and is currently mired in its second longest losing streak ever at 17 games as of Saturday evening.

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Tom Bennett, of Annapolis, and Jackson Bennett, 9, sit alone in the stands during a baseball game on Friday, August 20, 2021.
Tom Bennett, of Annapolis, and Jackson Bennett, 9, sit alone in the stands during a baseball game on Friday, August 20, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The drop in attendance and related revenues, however, has offered some financial relief to the Orioles: cheaper rent at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, considered by many to be the prettiest park in the majors.

The amount the team pays to the Maryland Stadium Authority has dipped the past few years because the club has been receiving substantially less money from ticket sales, advertising and other revenue sources during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to financial records.

The authority, which is the Orioles’ landlord, received $1.6 million in rent from the team during the fiscal year ending June 30, according to records obtained in a Public Information Act request.

That compares with the average of $6.8 million per year during the club’s 30-year lease.

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The rent payments, paid in February and August, rise and fall each year based partly on how much interest the Orioles are generating. The club has been losing, and the pandemic has been a huge drag on attendance, causing fans to be barred completely from the stadium in 2020.

The club pays the the stadium authority 7% of ticket sales, 25% of net stadium advertising revenues, 50% of net parking revenues, 9% of concessions sales, and 10% of suite and club-level revenues.

The rent has topped $8 million in some years when the team is particularly successful. Its last winning record was in 2016, when it finished 16 games over .500 before losing in the American League wild-card game.

But with fewer people going to games — attendance this season has averaged around 10,000 in a stadium that seats more than 45,000 — such revenues are way off.

Some of it may be affordability, according to Hinchliff, whose chief gripe with the team is the policy against bringing in outside food, despite the lifting of other COVID-19 related measures.

“I’m a student. I can’t spend like $40 in bad hot dogs,” she said. “We’re at a time in baseball where we need a new generation of baseball fans. If a family of four ... aren’t allowed to bring in outside food, how can they possibly afford that? It becomes a $200 evening instead of a $40 evening.”

Fans stand for the national anthem before the game between the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves begins on Friday, August 20, 2021.
Fans stand for the national anthem before the game between the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves begins on Friday, August 20, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Michael Frenz, the stadium authority’s executive director, said he doesn’t expect diminished attendance to be a ”long-term phenomenon.”

“One of the big factors for any sports team, particularly in baseball, is the team’s record. These things wax and wane, and as the team gets better — and they appear to be on the right track — attendance will turn up,” Frenz said.

The club had no comment, referring questions to the stadium authority.

The state also gets millions of dollars a year in admissions taxes from Orioles tickets. The pandemic and other factors have slashed those as well, although the amount of the decrease could not be determined from the documents.

The authority uses rent money to maintain Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 and is consistently rated among the best stadiums in Major League Baseball in fan and media surveys.

“That money is used on the complex — it’s not going back to the state,” Frenz said. “We’re using that for repairs, maintenance, to pay people, etc. So we adjust our expenses accordingly.”

Under the lease, the authority is responsible for maintenance and repairs while the team provides ushers, ticket-takers and other game-day staff.

Frenz and David Raith, the authority’s chief financial officer, said the declining rent payments have not affected the stadium’s condition.

“We don’t think we’re in kind of a crisis state at this point,” Frenz said. “We’re just more careful about our expenses, and our expenses are scaled to meet our revenues.”

The stadium lease expires at the end of 2021, although the Orioles have long had the option to extend it for five years.

In February, the authority said the parties agreed to extend the current agreement for two years through Dec. 31, 2023, with the club retaining the right to exercise a one-time, five-year extension by Feb. 1, 2023.

As lease negotiations continue, the team has said it has no intention of leaving Baltimore.

“While MSA cannot comment publicly on details of ongoing negotiations, we are pleased that the Baltimore Orioles have stated publicly that they remain committed to Baltimore and to Maryland,” authority spokesperson Rachelina Bonacci said in a written statement.

But the team needs to get better to bring back longtime fans like William Snider, whose parents used to drive with him about an hour up Interstate 95 from Alexandria, Virginia, to attend Sunday afternoon Orioles games. His father canceled their long-distance, partial season ticket plan in 2019, he said.

Snider, 26, now lives in Fells Point and believes in the Orioles rebuild. But instead of buying Orioles tickets, Snider and his brother have begun attending more Bowie Baysox games to see Baltimore’s future prospects.

“The minor leagues are actually putting on a better quality team,” he said.

Snider hopes the Orioles’ efforts to develop its international recruitment and farm system pay off with an improved major league team in the next year or two.

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“But as it stands right now, it’s just not really worth spending $9 on a beer, on top of like $20 on a ticket,” he said, “just to watch the team lose 15 times in a row.”

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